At work, Nora always walks to the vending machine at 3pm. Even if she brings a snack from home, at 2:45pm she starts thinking about the vending machine.

Over the years, Nora has put on a few pounds and her 3pm visits to the vending machine are not helping her lose the weight she wants to shed. But, like clockwork, anticipation starts to build and Nora feels the need to head to the elevator and down to the vending machine. A couple of minutes later, she gets back into the elevator, holding onto her chocolate bar or bag of chips.

Nora’s anticipation, walk to the elevator, and purchase of the food have become part of her daily routine. In fact, her need to go to the vending machine might not have anything to do with hunger. Rather, it all comes down to a simple, yet very powerful concept: habits.

The Power of Habit

In his best selling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg argues that most of the choices we make each day may feel like products of well-considered decision making. In reality, they are not. He explains:

They are habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our heath, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Duhigg’s research not only explains why habits work, but also how habits change. With an understanding of what habits are and then how you can change them, you can truly improve your life one baby step at a time.

The Habit Loop

The process of forming a habit is a three-step circular system within our brains. Habits begin with a cue, or a trigger that signals to your brain to go into “automatic.” A cue can be a time of day (such as Nora’s 3pm snack break), sound, smell, or feeling. Once the cue is triggered, there is the routine, or the response, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. Nora’s routine is the walk to the elevator and the purchasing of the snack. Lastly, there is the reward, which helps your mind figure out if this loop is worth recalling for the future. The following is a diagram of the habit loop:

With time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and the reward become interconnected until your brain anticipates the reward as soon as it hears, sees, or touches the cue. In this way, the routine action becomes a habit – a powerful craving for a reward whenever the trigger is activated.

Habits are not fixed in stone. Duhigg writes, “Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.” However, habits are so powerful because unless you actively work on fighting that habit, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making and focuses on other tasks. Therefore, unless you create new routines, the original habit (or routine) will progress automatically.

Change in Habits

The more we understand about habits, the easier they are to break down into their individual parts and change in order to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. The trick is not to get rid of habits, but to create ones that are more in line with our needs and values. After all, without habits such as many of our morning routines and nightly rituals, we would be consumed by the minutiae of our everyday lives. Even basic activities would seem daunting if we did not have an automatic routine to fall back on. Therefore, the goal is to change existing negative habits into ones that work within our desired lifestyles.

Duhigg argues that you cannot get rid of habits. Rather, you must work to replace them. The way to learn how to do this is to figure out what the reward is for each cue that triggers a routine. For instance, is Nora’s reward the snack or is it a needed break from boredom at a lull in the day? If Nora truly is hungry, then the 3pm cue to go to the vending machine can be followed by the routine of going to the office refrigerator and taking out a prepared snack such as a cup of fruit or some chummus and vegetables. However, if the reward is a break from boredom, Nora need not eat at all at 3pm. Rather, getting up and taking a 5-minute walk around the block or the building would provide the same reward.

In this way, habits are changed. By replacing the routine with another that yields the same reward, you can incorporate habits that positively affect your life.

Duhigg explains the timeliness of habit changing today, providing hope and words of encouragement:

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple.

But it is possible. And now we understand how.

With this newfound information, you too are equipped with the ability to change your own habits and to therefore change your life. You can break those bad habits into parts and rebuild them to your specifications.